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Wis. Senator Defeated with Clean Energy Message

Chris Larson used a "green cudgel" to beat out state Sen. Jeff Plale. His victory is a beacon to Wisconsin progressives.

By Elizabeth McGowan

Oct 14, 2010

 WASHINGTON—Before climate change denial became a tenet of the Tea Party movement, a headline about a Milwaukee-area Democrat winning a primary for a Senate seat in the might have been ho-hum.

But these days, 's ability to latch onto clean energy and wield it as a green cudgel to deliver a solid thumping to a longtime incumbent has the elements of a man-bites-dog story.

By capitalizing on the failure of his moderate-conservative Democrat opponent, , to deliver on his "Clean Energy Jobs Act," Larson defeated Plale in the state’s Sept. 14 primary. And his victory is serving as a green beacon to nervous progressives.

"For a 14-year veteran of the Wisconsin Legislature to lose over an environmental issue, and to lose by such a large margin—61 percent to 39 percent—that has never happened before," Keith Reopelle, senior policy director for environmental group , told SolveClimate News. "It sent shock waves, and the ramifications of this can’t be overstated."

Knocking Plale from his chairmanship of the Commerce, Utilities, Energy and Rail Committee will lead to a shakeup in state Senate leadership, Reopelle predicted, thus giving clean energy jobs legislation new legs.

Earth Day Opportunity for Larson

The basis for such a bill emerged in April 2007 when Democratic Gov. James Doyle appointed a mix of legislators, environmental advocates, utilities and industry groups to participate in his .

Plale co-authored the bill that eventually emerged and was being groomed for a vote this year. Ironically, it was on on April 22—Earth Day—that he and Senate Majority Leader Russ Decker, a fellow Democrat, allowed the to die on the floor without coming up for a vote. Plale told Wisconsinites that the bill would kill jobs and raise electricity rates for businesses and residents.

As chair of the Senate energy committee, Plale had collaborated with the head of the Senate Transportation, Tourism, Forestry and Natural Resources Committee and the chairs of both counterpart committees in the Assembly to craft the bill. The Senate and Assembly each created a Clean Energy Committee to shepherd the bill along, with Plale co-chairing the Senate's. Both the Assembly and the Senate have Democratic majorities.

"Plale wasn’t at the table in earnest," Larson told SolveClimate News about watching the bill flame out on the anniversary of Earth Day, a turning point in the modern environmental movement initiated in 1970 by Gaylord Nelson, a storied Wisconsin governor and U.S. senator. "It was a bittersweet celebration of 40 years of Earth Day to watch this bill grind to a halt," Larson said.

The event reminded the 29-year-old Larson of an exchange he’d once had with environmental attorney Robert Kennedy Jr., founder of the . The only way to create environmental change, Kennedy had stressed, was to become a candidate yourself.

"That conversation kept coming back to me," Larson said about his decision to enter the primary race. "I used those three months before the primary to educate the voters about the Clean Energy Jobs Act. In progressive areas, I talked about the green aspects, and in the conservative areas I talked about jobs."

If Larson, now a Milwaukee County supervisor, wins on Nov. 2, he will represent the 7th Senate District, which stretches along Lake Michigan near Milwaukee. The heavily Democratic but ideologically split district includes the traditionally liberal east side of Milwaukee and the more-blue collar and conservative suburbs of South Milwaukee, Oak Creek, St. Francis and Cudahy.

"Democrats have to stick to their guns and relate clean energy to jobs," Larson emphasized.

Plans to Resurrect RES

A centerpiece of the original bill, which Larson is intent on rejuvenating, was a statewide 25 percent renewable electricity standard (RES) to be met by 2025. A watered-down version of the bill lowered the RES to 20 percent and also removed vehicle emissions standards, a low-carbon fuel standard, appliance efficiency standards and advanced renewable (feed-in) tariff requirements.

Even the weakened version of bill, however, would save utility ratepayers $1.4 billion over the next 15 years even without federal regulation of greenhouse gases, according to an April by the . If heat-trapping gases are regulated, that number could jump to $6.4 billion over the same period.

In a released in January, economic and policy staff from a handful of Wisconsin state agencies released a preliminary economic impact model of the Clean Energy Jobs Act. The report concluded that the original version of the bill would create 1,800 jobs in the first year it was enacted and a minimum of 15,000 jobs by 2025.

A majority of the jobs would be in construction because of the bill’s emphasis on updating buildings, installing wind turbines and solar panels, and making homes and businesses more energy efficient.

"Among the primary beneficiaries of the legislation are the construction and manufacturing sectors," the report states, adding that these are stable and higher-wage jobs. "Construction and manufacturing jobs pay on average about 25 percent more than the average Wisconsin all-industry wage."

Clean Jobs and Big Oil

During the primary season, an organization called Citizens for a Progressive Wisconsin buoyed Larson and hammered Plale with ads and flyers for Plale’s failure to lead on the Clean Energy Jobs Act and for taking campaign money from the fossil fuel industry. The citizens' group is one of several left-leaning political corporations that has registered with the state Government Accountability Board. Groups on the other side of the political spectrum also have registered.  

Larson acknowledges that he’s a target for out-of-state industry groups in a state that spends billions of dollars to import all of the oil, coal and natural gas it relies on for energy.

"Those who have a stake in the status quo come out against you," he said. "They have a vested interest."

Still, the young progressive is counting on a Nov. 2 victory against his equally youthful Republican opponent, 27-year-old Jess Ripp. On , Ripp has referred to the Clean Energy Jobs Act as a "job killer and a black hole." Despite the 7th District’s long Democratic tradition, political observers say a right-leaning electorate could interrupt that streak.  

Wisconsin Congressional Dems May Be in Trouble

No doubt, Wisconsin Democrats serving in the nation's capital are wishing they could conjure up some of Larson's primary magic.

The nonpartisan is predicting that two of Wisconsin’s largest congressional districts—covering almost the entire northern half of the state—could shift from blue to red on Election Day.

Cook classifies the 7th Congressional District, which Democratic Rep. David Obey has served for 21 terms, as a toss-up. Democratic state Sen. Julie Lassa and Republican Sean Duffy, an attorney and lumberjack athlete, are vying to replace Obey, who is retiring.

Cook labels the adjacent 8th Congressional District as leaning Republican. Two-term Democrat Steve Kagen is trying to fend off Republican challenger Reid Ribble, owner of a roofing business. Both Obey and Kagen voted for the , the cap-and-trade bill passed by the House in 2009.

And Sen. Russ Feingold, seeking a fourth term, is having a devil of a time trying to shake off his Republican opponent, businessman Ron Johnson, a climate denier. Cook ranks that Senate seat as a toss-up, while other political prognosticators have moved it to "leans Republican" status.

“People are sick of Post-it Note politics,” Larson said about his decision to to go far beyond sound bites during his campaign. “I took the time to talk to voters about the Clean Energy Jobs Act, and they obviously got the message."

Larson said he knows progressives elsewhere are being pilloried for environmental initiatives. But he is grabbing the opportunity to focus on green jobs and technologies during this election cycle because he sees the combination as a way to boost Wisconsin’s flailing economy.

"There’s no silver bullet," he concluded. "But this type of legislation is huge for keeping money in the local economy."

Image: Ryan Wick via Wikimedia Commons license

See Also:

Governors See Jobs on the Path to Clean Energy, Efficiency

Wisconsin Coal Plant Rejected for Staggering Costs

States Look to Feed-in Tariffs to Boost Renewable Energy

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